Will you eat your way through the stress of the holidays?Nov 21, 2021
If you’ve done any shopping recently or strolled down the business district wherever you live, you know that the “holiday season” is upon us. Stores are selling “must have” gifts and festive decor items, holiday music is playing, children are SO excited as they meet Santa (after they likely missed it last year).
And for many of us, we can feel our stress levels starting to increase with the thoughts of what’s ahead, and the various circumstances that need to be navigated -- everything from who and how to celebrate with friends and family, to what foods and beverages to include in those holiday celebrations.
And that leads us to Stress Eating!
Yes, stress makes you hungry . . . and now we know why
When you feel stressed, you probably experience one or more of the “fight,” “flight,” or “freeze” reactions. These reactions are related to stress hormones that impact your physical body when your brain feels threatened or challenged. You may have heard of the stress hormones adrenaline and cortisol. But, the more we look into human physiology, the more we learn.
Of course, there are many symptoms of stress, one of which is the need to start searching for a quick, convenient snack (or that glass of wine!). That’s a pretty common experience, and now researchers have uncovered a link as to why.
A recent study published in the journal Nutrients looked through a number of studies to see how much evidence there really is for this potential link between stress and hunger. What makes this study pretty compelling was that it’s not based on just one study, but it compiled the results of several studies. In fact, ten studies met the researchers’ quality criteria (rating at least a six out of eight on their assessment), so they put all ten together and looked at the data from a “birds-eye view” to get an overview of what was going on. This particular study is a systematic review and meta-analysis, so that’s a very strong design and increases confidence in the result.
What the researchers found consistently through these studies was that when people were subjected to stress, they released another “stress” hormone called ghrelin.
The "Hunger" Hormone
Ghrelin was discovered in 1996 and became known as the “hunger” hormone (it has several functions, but appetite-regulation seems to be the main one). Ghrelin is a protein-based hormone released mainly by the stomach, which then travels throughout the body to get you to start looking for food.
When study participants were exposed to short-term stress (e.g., their non-dominant hand was placed in ice water for two minutes) their levels of ghrelin quickly increased, and then slowly decreased as minutes and hours went by. Another interesting thing is that we don’t know why ghrelin decreases after stress is removed. Researchers used to think that ghrelin levels came down after finding and eating food, but that wasn’t the case here. More studies are needed to shed light on the factors that reduce levels of this hunger hormone in the body.
The bottom line is that several studies show that the hunger hormone ghrelin is released in response to stress and this is related to why we often feel the need to “stress eat.”
Stress and Excess Weight
The researchers then wanted to take this finding one step farther. Because we know that stress is tied to excess weight, and excess weight is a source of stress, they wondered if the stress-ghrelin response was different in people experiencing overweight and obesity. They found that stressed people with excess weight tended to have higher levels of ghrelin that lasted even longer than stressed people without excess weight. It’s not clear right now which comes first: increased ghrelin in response to weight or increased weight in response to ghrelin, but there certainly seems to be a correlation.
The overall conclusion is that, yes, ghrelin the “hunger” hormone is also a stress hormone and people experiencing overweight and obesity tend to experience higher levels of ghrelin when under stress.
So now what?
What can you do with the information found in this new study?
We all experience stress, so finding positive ways to manage it can be very helpful. Some of my favourite strategies of course include:
- Ramping up your mental self-care with mindfulness and gratitude
- Building your physical self-care with nutritious foods and physical activity
- Communicating your needs to others and/or saying “no” sometimes
While more research is needed to dig further into ghrelin as a hunger and stress hormone, one interesting takeaway was that the ghrelin levels decreased even without eating. So, if you’re compelled toward stress eating when you’re truly not hungry, know that the impulse will decrease even without satisfying it. You can try drinking water or if you do partake in stress food, do so slowly and mindfully. Or spend a few minutes with your inner self -- stop what you’re doing, close your eyes, listen to your body and notice what arises.
Need guidance on how to do this?
Check out weekly Yoga and Meditation classes here: "Take a Deep Breath In!"
And of course the other trick is to NOT have unhealthy snacks in your home.
These are difficult to avoid during the holidays, but it is possible to prepare healthier versions of your family favourites.
To learn how, join me for Healthier Holiday Sweets and Treats on December 2 at 7 pm EST.
And anyone who signs up before November 30 gets a BONUS! I will also send you my “Healthy Holiday Appetizers” Recipe eBook. So don’t delay, sign up today!
Bouillon-Minois, J. B., Trousselard, M., Thivel, D., Gordon, B. A., Schmidt, J., Moustafa, F., Oris, C., & Dutheil, F. (2021). Ghrelin as a Biomarker of Stress: A Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis. Nutrients, 13(3), 784. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu13030784
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